Response to Colorado Attorney General’s Threat of Sanctions

LAW OFFICE OF JASON FLORES-WILLIAMS

1851 Bassett Street Denver, CO 80202  3035144524/Jfw@jfwlaw.net

 

NOVEMBER 28, 2017

Via electronic delivery:

Attorney General, State of Colorado

Lain.leoniak@coag.gov, Karen.kwon@coag.gov, Scott.steinbrecher@coag.gov

Case No. 17-CV-02316

Re: The Colorado Attorney General’s Sanctions Threat

Dear Mr. Steinbrecher:

The Attorney General’s threat of sanctions is a legally baseless attempt to harass and intimidate a civil rights attorney in good standing who has dedicated his career to protecting the powerless from the powerful. The governor is being sued in his official capacity for violating federal constitutional rights. The suit does not seek money, but only prospective injunctive and declaratory relief. Under Ex parte Young, Colorado River Ecosystem v. State of Colorado relies on a widely-recognized exception to sovereign immunity that American courts have reaffirmed for more than a century. Despite this, the Attorney General is demanding voluntary dismissal of the Amended Complaint filed on November 3, 2017 while threatening me with Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(c)(1)—referred to as Rule 11—sanctions.[1]

Lacking actual legal grounds, the Attorney General’s letter can only be understood as an attempt to harass me and silence the Rights of Nature movement. In an effort to send a message, the Attorney General has resorted to improper intimidation tactics to defeat a lawsuit seeking rights for a critically-threatened, 60-million-year-old river that runs through all life in the Western United States. The Attorney General’s mandate is to protect and serve the rights of the people of this State, of which the undersigned is an engaged citizen, not to use those vested powers to bully, intimidate and forcibly chill those with whom it does not agree. The Attorney General holds a place of public trust in which it is expected to use its powers responsibly and with concern for the peace and welfare of the people of this State.  Rather than acknowledge scientific concern and consider a common sense legal doctrine that could address the urgency of our current environmental condition, the Attorney General chooses to attempt to damage the career of a Colorado social justice lawyer. There is an unfortunate tendency in the United States today where those in power attack the individual with the hopes of undermining not only the credibility of the argument, but of the facts themselves. To use the imprimatur of state seal and power of government office in this manner is not only unconscionable, but will silence neither reality nor the necessity of expanding our law.

The Rights of Nature were first cognized by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972). [Amended Compl. ¶ 38.] The doctrine has since spread to countries around the world, providing governments with legal tools to respond to the intensifying collapse of natural ecosystems on this planet. Our lawsuit seeks the same rights for the Colorado River that abstract legal fictions like corporations already possess. This litigation is neither radical nor impracticable, but would simply even the playing field between multi-national corporations and an imperiled natural world.[2]

Unfortunately, in the United States, state governments and attorney general offices are often structured to favor private, corporate interests over the citizenry and the environment. It is here that we most likely find the Attorney General’s motivation for threatening me with sanctions.

Rather than spend a few hours amending its first “Motion to Dismiss” [Doc. 10], the Attorney General chooses to spend the next month-and-a-half (of taxpayer money and court time) engaging in frivolous motions practice. The concern is not judicial efficiency; nor, obviously, justice, but to make an example of me so that other attorneys and citizens will be deterred from bringing Rights of Nature litigation. When one opines on the unethical legal practices that the Attorney General has never threatened to sanction—banking firms who fraudulently foreclosed on homes, corporate attorneys who helped privatize our water to sell it back to us—the agenda here becomes clear. It is not enough to simply defeat this doctrine, but you must injure the attorney who brought it, so that others will refrain from attempting to address the gross disparity between corporate rights and the natural world.

The consistent refusal by our elected officials to respond to ecological collapse is enough to engender a deep cynicism. I’ve expressly resisted this cynicism. I believe that our judicial system wants to protect American citizens and reverse environmental degradation. From proposing inperson meetings to explain the Rights of Nature doctrine to sending emails for the sole purpose of alleviating the Attorney General’s workload in this matter, I have gone far beyond my ethical duty to make this litigation respectful and amenable to the Governor and Attorney General.

Nonetheless, the Attorney General threatens me with sanctions that will harm my career. Sanctions, as you well know, that will have an impact on my financial well-being and therefore the well-being of my family as well as the many individuals and families whom I support through pro bono legal work. As the Attorney General appears content to threaten the integrity of my life and career, I am sure that you won’t mind if ask you a few questions that go to the heart of yours:

What will you tell your grandchildren when the Colorado River is so drained and fractured that it can no longer support life? Will our legacy to them be a sustainable and thriving environment or a toxic atmosphere of justifications and excuses? I don’t have the power of the Colorado Attorney General’s office, but will tell my grandchildren that I did my best to find solutions to the crisis we face today. I saw my participation in the legal profession as an honor and privilege and invested myself in the vitality and vigor of our jurisprudence. I didn’t use my status as an attorney to threaten people or the environment or to turn my back on those who needed help, but to fight for a society in which all living things are afforded dignity and respect. Future generations will look back and will see those of us who stood for the Rights of Nature as having championed a better world.

The Amended Complaint will not be withdrawn. Legally, it should not be.[3] Morally, it cannot be. The suit presents a warranted position, to put it mildly, that based on a Supreme Court opinion and international law seeks to appropriately modify and expand our conception of rights.[4] I would argue that there are better things that we could be doing with our legal skills than engaging in Rule 11 litigation—pro bono representation of the poor, for example—but when I think of the Colorado River, the beautiful and complex life that depends on it, and how that life is currently being damaged, exploited and eradicated—there may not be, upon reflection, a more worthwhile endeavor into which this law firm could invest itself.

Best,

s/Jason Flores-Williams, Esq.

Attorney For Plaintiff Colorado River Ecosystem

[1] The first line of ¶ 2 states the alleged grounds for the Attorney General’s Rule 11: “The Amended Complaint fails to disclose law contrary to your position that Eleventh Amendment immunity does not apply.” First, the Amended Complaint is in over-compliance with Fed. R. Civ. P. 8, which calls for “a short and plain statement for the Court’s jurisdiction.” (Complaints are not the appropriate instrument for full briefing.) Second, there are four conceptual negatives in the sentence that “expressly” states the grounds on which the Attorney General threatens to seek sanctions against an attorney in good standing, which as a matter of intentional obfuscation, is unprofessional and unethical in the grave context of Rule 11 litigation.  

[2] More than 16,000 scientists recently issued a Dire Warning to Humanity. http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/14/health/scientists-warn-humanity/index.html

[3] An even cursory review of Muscogee (Creek) Nation v. Pruitt, 669 F.3d 1159 (10th Cir. 2012), shows that the 10th Circuit has succinctly summarized the issue of 11th Amendment sovereign immunity in the context of the Ex parte Young exception.  The court titled the subsection of its opinion “The Ex parte Young Standard for Sufficiency of the Complaint,” and began as follows: To determine whether the Ex parte Young exception applies, we ‘need only conduct a straightforward inquiry into whether the complaint alleges an ongoing violation of federal law and seeks relief properly characterized as prospective.’ Thus, for the Ex parte Young exception to apply, plaintiffs must show that they are: (1) suing state officials rather than the state itself, (2) alleging an ongoing violation of federal law, and (3) seeking prospective relief.

The Amended Complaint satisfies all three prongs of the test for this exception.

[4] See Predator Int’l, Inc. v. Gamo Outdoor USA, Inc., 793 F.3d 1177 (10th Cir. 2015)

News for Environmental Activists